Crystal Talk
Text: Norman Kietzmann, Katrin SchamunPhotos: Diller Scofidio + Renfro


profil dillerscofidiorenfro

There are architects who build and those who would like to build. New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro constitute a third category. They came to architecture rather late in the proceedings, having initially worked in the fields of art, theater and performing arts. “Our research topic is space and its limits within our culture” says Elizabeth Diller, explaining the studio’s tactics. For her, architecture is much more than just assembling functional boxes. It becomes a method of questioning contexts and relating them to each other. To this end it sometimes even dissipates.

If there were a way to gauge the impact buildings have, in the case of Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s the arrow would always be pointing upwards. Even though their studio has not realized more than a handful of projects since it was established in 1979, its influence on the current architecture scene is nonetheless immense. Their secret? It is their perception of space, which defies architecture’s conventional view and transfers it to a different aggregate state. In their work space begins to flow.

It becomes a medium which can be regarded as a state of permanent change and development, something that has long since left the limitations of the static behind. In 2002 Diller Scofidio + Renfro were finally able to put into practice what they had written about in numerous articles on a theoretical level. Their temporary pavilion for the Swiss National Exhibition, erected as a metal construction hovering above Lake Neuchâtel, was more than just a conventional type of building. It was perhaps what architecture always wanted to be: A cloud which changed its shape, size, and appearance with the direction of the wind, allowing the boundaries between inside and outside to completely blur. Using innumerable little nozzles, which vaporized the lake water into an opaque cloud, the architects created a sensuous experience into which, surrounded by thick rain capes and 100 percent humidity, visitors were able to immerse themselves.


With this piece of work Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio and Charles Renfro liberated architecture from much more than its previous materiality and structure. In a certain way they reinvented it. It was the first building to have a facade you could not touch but still feel. And it was the first building to actually achieve the variability and movement called for back in the architectural Utopia of the 1960s. While Wolf Prix was still talking about cloud plans from the early days of his youth, Diller Scofidio + Renfro had long since intelligently turned them into reality. They created a building which could no longer be defined in terms of classic footprints and elevations. But more than that, the multi-sensual impact of the building cannot even be adequately captured with photography or film. It can only be experienced directly on location.


Diller Scofidio + Refro’s success in uniting a whole series of architectural utopias in a single building while at the same time throwing overboard those conventions in form, function and structure which save most architects from progressive designs, is explained not least of all by the charismatic New Yorkers’ personal history. This too began in the 1970s and by no means went by the book.

Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio met at Cooper Union School. She was born in 1954 and studied art while he was her 20-years older professor. From then on a couple in their private and professional lives, the apartment they shared on Cooper Square soon became a well known New York meeting place for the art and architectural scene.
It was not surprising that the first practical projects they undertook in addition to their numerous theoretical works were on the borderline between art, performance and theatre. The architectural aspect, however, was already clearly perceptible, as was with their playful sense of transformation. Between 1993 and 1998 they created works from “falsely” ironed shirts entitled “Housework Series.” Probably the best-known - and at the same time most boring - piece of clothing was transformed into a complex spatial figure by means of origami folds. Small-scale architecture, which appeared mysteriously familiar and yet strange.


They advanced this playful observation in other works. In their “Master/Slave” installation in the Cartier Foundation in Paris in 1999, visitors became voyeurs of a strange scenario. In the middle of a showcase measuring 10 x 10 meters a whole group of historical robot toys from the 1960s and ‘70s moved along a conveyor belt almost 90 meters long. The robots, all from the collection of Vitra boss Rolf Fehlbaum, stood in a row which moved, stopped, and then continued again. They stood in queues like the unemployed at the Labor Office. Or were they just travelers waiting at the booth for hours for their ticket? The exhibition was structured such that it was impossible to observe the robots up close. All one could see was the view on the laterally mounted monitors, which displayed images from the observation cameras inside the showcases. No angle was spared from view - even when the line of robots moved down a ramp and was photographed by x-ray machines, like at airports. The inner mechanical life of the little humans robots was suddenly made visible to the outside.


“Architects should reveal our cultural world, examine it - I call this evolution. Our aim is to give answers,” Elizabeth Diller continues. What makes them different from other theoreticians is their unerring sense for rather obscure subjects that can nonetheless be implemented, even if they first have to be roused from a deep, Snow White-style sleep - as has been the case with their highly regarded current project in their hometown, New York. In the heart of the meatpacking district they transformed a disused elevated railway track into a park suspended over the city. Like the “Blur Building” this appears as a strange hybrid entity which combines a technically constructed foundation with partly wild, partly newly cultivated vegetation.

While the “High Line Park” - whose first two-kilometer long section of construction was opened in June 2009 - is considered one of the most ambitious development projects in New York at this time, Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio and Charles Renfro, who joined the studio as a new partner in 2004, have also been commissioned to work on another major project in the city: The conversion and extension of the Lincoln Center of Performing Arts. What they prescribe for the world’s largest cultural center is far more than just a visual facelift inside. Their plans envisage opening up the self-contained ensemble and expanding it into the context of the city, overcoming its hermetic feel.

With their two first completed buildings Diller Scofidio & Renfro have demonstrated that they are not only able to conceive architecture but to turn it into reality as well. In addition to the Slighter Building (2000) in Gifu, Japan, in which they compacted 105 residential units into a slightly offset, rhythmical facade strip, it was the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston, which opened in 2007, that enabled them to give free rein their spatial qualities. The building, the first new museum to be built in the east coast city for 100 years, appears as a striking, hovering structure projecting far beyond Fan Pier in the historical harbor. The public space, one of the most frequented squares in the city, is directly linked to the culture center by way of a large flight of stairs. Here too an essential aspect of their work is revealed. Even though Diller Scofidio + Renfro are always perceived as intellectuals in the international architecture scene, their projects never come across as being elite. Far more than this, however, they are so open and integrative that they take the wind out of even the most conservative sails. And in this, perhaps, lies their greatest achievement: They have liberated the avante-garde from the salon.